Social media has been driving the recent events in Egypt and Tunisia, but not much is known about how people in the Arab world are using these new tools to communicate.
To gain some insight, IJNet talked to Jeffrey Ghannam, an international media consultant and attorney who specializes in media law and free expression.
Ghannam is also a veteran journalist with experience in the Middle East and North Africa, who recently who authored a 44-page report titled, "Social Media in the Arab World: Leading up to the Uprisings of 2011" for the National Endowment for Democracy Center for International Media Assistance in Washington, D.C.
IJNet: Your research shows that about 17 million people in the Arab world are using Facebook. What is the appeal of social networking sites there?
Jeffrey Ghannam: My research is ongoing, those figures may be even higher now, one source says more than 20 million. It's an evolving situation, particularly with social media, we're really at the dawn of social media and the digital age in the Arab world.
Media development trainers in the region, not necessarily in Egypt but in the West Bank, have told me that people like to use Facebook as a microblog. It's easier to use for a lot of people than establishing, updating and maintaining a personal blog. In a situation like the Palestinian Territory, Facebook provides a personal platform to communicate in one or two sentences; microblogging just fits with people's schedules, their networks, and life's hardships under occupation. If you drop your Facebook updates for a week, no one really notices, well some will, but if you have a blog, it needs fresh content, maintenance, and the time and interest to do it to keep an audience and attract new readers.
The two platforms -- Twitter and Facebook -- are very different. Twitter in particular seems to be more current, easier and more attuned to the circumstances of rapidly-changing events like those we've seen in Tunisia and Egypt in recent weeks. Content on Facebook, on the other hand, is limited to those who belong to groups or have access to certain pages. In Tunisia, activists have said that content from Facebook was aggregated and then rebroadcast on Twitter for wider dissemination.
IJNet: Would you recommend that journalists reporting on the Arab region use social media to gather information and find sources?
JG: Sure, absolutely. I think Facebook and Twitter are leads, much like someone calling a reporter to say, “Here's a story you really should look into.” Similarly, I think tweets or Facebook updates can be newsy, it can be like someone telling you something on the street or faxing you information or sending you an email. It's all part of the mix. I don't think you can rely on Facebook or Twitter alone, it's not really enough, but it's definitely a source of news updates and information that should be followed up on.
IJNet: You note in your research that some governments are monitoring people on Facebook. If you try to contact a source through Facebook, how do you convince them it's OK to talk to you?
JG: That's a really good question. I attended a panel discussion at the National Democratic Institute just yesterday (n.b. Feb. 7) where a social media political activist spoke about alleged government disinformation through the creation of Facebook pages or blogs or tweets.
The issue for journalists is – and will always remain – there must be a bond of trust between you and your sources. Unfortunately, Facebook and Twitter don't necessarily let you create that physical bond of trust, and it's hard to create a virtual bond of trust. It's not so easy to report strictly through social media unless you have already established a relationship.
IJNet: Social media can get us the information quicker, but sometimes it can take ages to follow up and verify it.
JG: It's time consuming, like a lot of good journalism. Good journalism also requires trusted sources, who journalists can rely on for accurate information. Similarly, sources rely on journalists to be true to their word, such as when protecting anonymity, getting the story right the first time, and working for the public good.
IJNet: What role do you see social media playing in places where there is continuing unrest?
JG: In both Egypt and Tunisia, social media has earned a place in society. It's not a fad. It will continue to be a source of news and information and a potential mobilizing platform for certain groups. I can't foretell the future, but I agree with what has been widely reported: the fear factor in places like Egypt and Tunisia has been vanquished, both before the protests that led to the coup in Tunisia and the mobilization and protests in Egypt. It's not that people have nothing to fear. On the contrary, there are still serious dangers for bloggers, citizen journalists, and others who are active online and the risks need to be taken seriously.
It's still early in the digital age of the Arab world, but social media has earned a place as a provider of news and information. Is it always a trusted provider? No. People are wise to be skeptical of what they see online.
A Tunisian activist told me that Tunisians are increasingly asking for documentation of news and information online. So if someone says something happened, they should provide the source. And if that source is their own eyes, they need to say that explicitly. People are becoming more demanding about documentation and evidence in order to believe the tremendous amount of information coming across these platforms. That's a very positive step towards increased vigilance and increased responsibility for those who take on these roles of providing news, information and even opinion. Like any good news provider or information provider, they also need to provide the authority to back up what they report.
IJNet: In countries where state-run or party-funded media dominate, are people attracted to social media as a source of independent information?
JG: Definitely. I think that social media -- and YouTube and microblogging and video and other means – have enabled individuals and communities to set their own agendas. They can say: this is our experience on a particular day, this is what happened. That wasn't always possible in the Arab world and, in large measure, is still not possible in many places in the region. But the ability of individuals to communicate their own views when they want and how they see fit has been unprecedented in changing the status quo.
IJNet: Do you think the Arab world is moving towards investing more in social media rather than social capital and social relationships? How "healthy" do you think this is?
JG: My sense of the Arab world is that you are never going to lose out on real-world social relationships. It is a social culture: people enjoy meeting with others, they enjoy speaking with others, they enjoy expressing themselves.
I'm speaking from a Levantine, Eastern Mediterranean perspective -- that's largely my experience -- but also in North Africa and the Gulf, people have a need to be with other people, talking face to face. I don't think social media platforms can replace that need. However, that's not to say that some people aren't spending hours and hours pounding away on these tweets and Facebook updates and blog posts – they certainly are – and perhaps relationships have suffered as a result of time spent online. It's a personal choice.
I don't think online activity is going to replace the need for in-person relationships, but I don't think we should ignore the impact on relationships, either.
To read more or download the complete 44-page CIMA report, click here.